Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

So, you want to get a Ph.D ?

About half a dozen friends have reached out to me, over the last two and half years since I have been in a Ph.D program (in the U.S.) to ask me what it is like. While it is impossible to fully describe what it is to be a full-time student, and the joys of going through this process, I’ve tried to condense a few key issues into the points below. Much of what I have written here applies to American academia. I hope it helps those who are sitting on the fence or are undecided if a Ph.D is for them. Here goes:CaH

  1. You will be poor – for a long time: While the glamor of being surrounded by intellectuals, really smart professors and access to (quite literally) all the books in the world is sexy, remember that unless you have a lot of savings of your own, a significant other who is supporting you financially or are from a rich family; you will be poor. And this means, deciding between indulging in a $5 pizza or saving it for a book, that you need. It can be depressing, at times. And this could range from between three or five – at times ten years, depending on how quickly you can finish your work and how cooperative your committee is.
  2. You will be terribly lonely – also for a long time: This is another fact. Unless you have a super-high IQ and a photographic memory, you’ll have to read, re-read and discuss ideas, books and films that will form you as an intellectual. This means that you will have to spend time alone. By nature, I can be reclusive, while maintaining a social personality, so this has been easy for me. But I do wish my program had more social events/ gatherings and occasions to meet people. Remember that in your undergrad or Masters level courses, there are dozens of likeminded people you can meet, but in a Ph.D program the cohort is typically small, sometimes as small as six people, three of whom you may not like. The other two may be whackos. So, good luck making friends.
  3. Get used to feeling stupid – hopefully not for ever: The first year is the hardest. I felt incredibly stupid in my first year in the Ph.D program. But I have started feeling better, incrementally. Remember that almost all the people you will interact will have a Ph.D and may not necessarily understand your work, unless they are all in the same field, which is unlikely. So, putting a bunch of very high IQ people together, who don’t understand each other makes for an interesting situation. Much of the time, you may end up being the most junior person around and as a consequence, feel like you don’t know anything worth knowing. Unless you are a cocky son of a bitch! In which case, everyone will hate you.
  4. You will be criticized, called out and perhaps attacked – All in good spirit, though! Academics are notorious for tearing each others ideas apart, telling you that none of what you are researching makes sense. I have been told more than once that I should consider an alternate career, rather than research and teaching. We’ll see what comes of this process…on the other hand, there have been people (academics) who are incredibly supportive and think that I will ‘re-define the field of research on Islamic philanthropy’. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Only time will tell. The point is, that everyone is trying to finetune their ‘critical thinking’ and being critical of others intellectual output  becomes second nature. I am much more critical of issues in general now, than when I started the program.  But this also means that you need to find a group of supportive, faithful friends who will see value in your work and help you grow intellectually.
  5. Your life will change : As one of my mentors at the Maxwell School said: “If you are single, you’ll get married, if you are married, you (may) get divorced and if your parents are alive, they’ll probably die, during your Ph.D program.” A sobering reality indeed. And yes, in my case, some of his predictions are turning out to be true.

Now that i’ve delivered the bad news, here is some good news, some of the  redeeming factors:

  1. It can be the most intellectually rewarding experience of your life– The process of thinking through, debating, writing on issues that you care about deeply can transform you, as a person. Also, I’ve been terribly lucky to have met, worked with and hung out with some of the smartest people in the world.
  2. You will start feeling smart about yourself, after some time – I’ve gained some of the confidence that I lost in my first year in the program. Once you start realizing that there are few people who are as focused as you are, in your area of research, your confidence will (usually) grow. That is, if you are putting in the effort, getting ‘peer review’ that is positive and getting published in peer-reviewed journals – a sure sign that you are doing ‘something right’.
  3. You will perhaps be the only person in the world who will know (almost) everything there is to know about your topic. An economics professor shared this wisdom with me, about a year ago. Her words still ring in my ear. She said “Once you finish your Ph.D, you will probably be the only person who knows the most about your topic, in any room you enter.” Think about that for a minute.
  4. You will probably end up in a very stable and rewarding career, after the struggle is over.
  5. June, July August: As one of my other mentors said, the best reason to get a Ph.D and enter the Academy – June, July and August. You get three months off work. And if you are lucky to get a tenured track position, this means you get to write a book, research or travel during these three months. Which other job allows you to be so free and independent? I can think of a few…